A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook asking for resources to learn how to better apply her makeup. This friend is a lovely, radiant, confident young woman, so I was pretty irked when I saw over half the replies were some variation on “you look so much better without makeup!” and “you don’t need it! You’re beautiful without it!”. I assume these remarks were made with good intentions, but as somebody who has devoted a pretty large part of her recent life to cosmetics, I hear these sorts of things a lot, and I’m sick of it. Here’s why.
I’d like to kick this off by creating a bit of a metaphor; makeup is a lot like alcohol. It’s non-essential, but something a lot of people really enjoy. They can be particular about certain types (a certain vintage scotch, a certain eyeliner), and associate it with different types of events and seasons (champagne on New Year’s, bright lipstick in the summer). The use of these substances can be indicative of deeper problems (alcoholism, cripplingly low self-esteem), but in the vast majority of “users”, there is no sinister underlying cause; just enjoyment.
Imagine you told somebody about a great new beer or cocktail you’d recently tried, and instead of saying “that sounds delicious” or “we should go drink some together sometime”, they said “you know, you don’t need alcohol to be happy.” You are likely so well aware of this that it hadn’t even occurred to you; that’s not why you liked that beer. So, when the person you’re trying to share something you’re excited about with immediately assumes you have some sort of deep-seated problem with alcohol, well—that’s kind of insulting. You aren’t an alcoholic, you don’t use alcohol in excess to escape your life, so to have that be the primary assumption whenever you try to spread the news about the awesome new chocolate porter you tried last week… it’s upsetting. It sucks to realize that your friends think you have a substance problem with absolutely no evidence other than the fact that you enjoy alcohol and tried to share that enjoyment with them.
So, when an attempt to discuss makeup as something you enjoy is met with “you’re beautiful without it!”, it seems like that person assumes you are unhappy with way you look, have awful self-esteem, and are using makeup to bolster your self esteem and hide your perceived ugliness. Obviously pretty much nobody has so little tact as to say exactly that, so they attempt to pay you an awkward compliment in some sort of misguided attempt to address the “problem” they assume you have, simply because you want to improve your cat eye or bought (or made!) a wicked new lippy. And that’s just as insulting as somebody assuming you are an alcoholic because you happen to like scotch.
Also: makeup does, typically, make you look better (just like drinking alcohol does, typically, improve your mood—even if that’s not the sole reason you’re consuming it). When makeup is applied well, your complexion looks more even and radiant, and it’s virtually undetectable. So, when people assert you look better without it, that’s typically untrue, and often a bit ignorant. That person may not really care about (or notice) your blotchy complexion or that zit on your chin, but objectively speaking, and for the vast majority of people, makeup is improving the situation. To refer back to my friend on Facebook—it turns out one of the people telling her she was more beautiful without makeup had never actually seen her without it on, so what did they know? Perhaps they had visions of ham-it-up style stage makeup dancing in their head, but their ignorance was definitely showing with their whole “trust me, you look better without it” message.
The “trust me, I think you’re more beautiful without it” remark is perhaps even more irksome because it addition to the “I think you have awful self esteem” undercurrents, that remark says “my opinion about how you look matters more than your own”. Sod off. It’s as if I said “I’m going to make myself an egg salad sandwich for lunch” and you replied “egg salad is disgusting, trust me, you should have tuna instead”. I don’t care. It’s my lunch. I was no fan of Amy Winehouse’s crazy cat (mountain lion? It was seriously large!) eyeliner, but that was her thing, and more power to her. Whatever. My opinion is completely irrelevant in that situation, just as some Facebook friend who wants to tell me that they think I am more beautiful without makeup, that they think my pants are too bright of a colour, or that I’d look better with short hair. Nobody asked them. My body, my face, my style, my aesthetic. My egg salad sandwich.
I have a few theories as to why makeup is subjected to this sort of “you must have a problem” group-think. First off, it’s primarily a women’s interest, meaning a sizeable portion of the population doesn’t use makeup. If you don’t use makeup (or don’t enjoy using it), I can definitely see how it would look like a big chore—similar to how I view vehicle maintenance. Oil changes and the like are something I have no interest in doing and would rather pay somebody else to do. I do understand, however, that some people actually enjoy these activities, so saying something like “don’t you know you can pay somebody to do that for you?” is a really rude thing to say when somebody tells you excitedly that they’ve just changed their oil for the first time.
Another theory is that so much of cosmetic marketing is designed to prey on insecurities that it’s easy to start to think people with crippling insecurities are the only people who would be interested—that anybody with sturdier self esteem wouldn’t fall prey to such marketing crap. I’ve found that if you’re actually interested in makeup, many smaller (and/or premium) brands don’t market this way—it’s just the big ones that can afford to hire Olivia Wilde and airbrush her within an inch of her life, but those are the ones that are the most visible.
My grandmother’s generation (or my grandmother, at least) was very much of the “look good for your man” thought train—that you weren’t put together without lipstick and curls. That’s certainly not my generation, though. I think third wave feminism has introduced a bit of an over-correction in some ways. Many of the women on Sex in the City couldn’t cook and were proud of it, some women don’t shave their underarms, and some are proud of their inability/lack of desire to apply makeup. And that’s fine—if you don’t want to shave or wear eyeliner, don’t, but that doesn’t make you a “better” feminist than women that like cooking or lipstick. Don’t shame other women who have an interest in typically female activities. That doesn’t make them “bad” feminists. Feminism is about women being able to make their own decisions and having equal opportunities, whether that’s being a firefighter, a stay-at-home mom, an ad exec, or a lady with seriously on-point brows.
That’s not all of it, but I think those are the biggest reasons “you don’t need makeup” statements irk me. I KNOW I don’t need makeup, and I am not some lone, enlightened human in this realm. The vast majority of people who enjoy makeup know they don’t need it, too. We also don’t need flattering clothes, soft sheets, that pretty necklace, a pint of porter, or delicious chocolates, but when I talk about my love of chocolate, people don’t immediately tell me “don’t eat your feelings, there are healthier ways to deal with your emotions” (or at least if they do, most people recognize that’s a pretty douchey thing to say). Don’t shame people for enjoying something completely benign. A love of makeup does not equate a hatred of oneself!
Now, if you are thinking to yourself “hey, I’m just saying something nice! Don’t get your panties in such a twist, learn how to take a compliment!”, I would like to encourage you to start handing out compliments at more opportune times. If anybody has ever told you “you don’t need to lose weight, you look great!” right after you’ve turned down dessert, you know how insincere such “compliments” sound when they are so obviously inspired by the assumption you dislike something about yourself—like you were fishing for compliments, even though you weren’t. If somebody truly looks lovely, and you have a genuine compliment to pay, say so. Don’t wait until it’ll sound like you’re saying “I think you hate yourself and am throwing a pity compliment at you because I think you need it.”
I think it should go without saying that if you know somebody very well, and are truly worried about their self esteem, alcohol consumption, or that quantity of egg salad they consume, please say something. Address it in a genuine, concerned way, in a non-public forum. That is what true friends are for.
Anyhow, those are my thoughts on telling people they “don’t need” makeup. What do you think? Have you said similar things to friends or family members? What were your intentions? How do you feel when people say something similar to you?